The title of your most recent film is Guest (2010). However, is it accurate to say that the film plays on several meanings of this word? The obvious reference is to yourself as “festival” guest, but is there not also the idea that you in turn are a “guest” in the lands of these many people and cultures that you visit? Often, like a welcome guest, they invite you into their homes, their neighbourhoods, their private lives, their histories.
Guest guarantees a pact with the spectator – a frame of reference, and within it a demarcation: every image and sound is in the condition of a “guest”, who reaches multiple, involuntary destinations within a year-long period. This limit is co-substantial to the film’s composition, the idea in itself.
It also defines the viewpoint of enunciator, who does not form part of that which is shown – and who is not a specialist in the places that they visit, but instead, departs from curiosity and observation that are expected from their status as a “guest”.
The pact with the world is thus defined, and from it come the links and resonances of the word – which can gravitate in different ways when the film is viewed – from the globalising role of the word in the English language, to the existentialist interpretation of “life as a guest,” or those who relate to the people displaced from their countries of origin.
I believe one of the most rotund separations between television and cinema is the capacity of a larger semantic density in each thing – as opposed to the levity of the television image, which wears out within just one look, cinema grants the viewer a synthesis of the senses, and admits more than just a glimpse, more than just one possibility.
Furthermore, you give attention to the “guest worker”, as with the Filipino workers in Macao or Hong Kong, or the “unwelcome guest”, as with the African immigrants in France chanting “ Committed, not dangerous” in their desire to be given residency status. Were these scenes just part of the images of the cities as you encountered them or were you also conscious of the differing interpretations of the concept of the “guest” as you filmed these moments?
Normally, consciousness comes afterwards, during montage. Consciousness during filming is hidden within the instinctive, within the capture of something one can intuitively observe as revealing. Afterwards, when editing, one acquires consciousness of sense, and can weigh the value of words and silences.
The image of the blank pages of a diary or notebook is a recurring motif in your cinema. It is very prominent in En la ciudad de Sylvia (2007) and in Guest. The poet Mallarmé placed great significance on the mystery and terror of the blank page. Can you say a little about this motif in your films?
A blank page is a permanent stimulus, a motor. It is unimportant whether it is a page, a canvas, or a screen, since it contains something essential where all media are closely related. There is nothing comparable to the instant just before a projection on a blank screen; when all films are still possible, within the latent possibility of revelation. It is also an aspiration that is there, to try to make a film while preserving its virtue as a blank page, a film in which all films are possible. On the other side, it’s a mystery that the smooth surface of a blank page is closely related to that of the screen.
Your film Innisfree (1990) combines a voyage to the land of cinema (in the footsteps of John Ford’s The Quiet Man ) and a voyage to the land of communities. At a certain level, Guest is not dissimilar. There is the film festival circuit and its attendant cinephilia (posters, images, homages) but also your encounters with the civic or communal life of a country. Would you agree that there is in equal measure this sense of the “voice” of the cinema and the “voice” of the people?
I had not thought of this with relation to Innisfree, and I believe your appreciation is quite correct. This fluctuation and feedback between film and life is very present in all that I have done. I like cinema a lot, but it would depress me to think of it as something endogenic, something folded within itself.
Guest is subtitled “Diario de registoros”. The “diary” film has a long tradition in film history and in particular the American Underground and experimental traditions (Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, et al). Can you say something of your interest in this form of cinema?
This interest has its precedent in literature. I think of cinema as an alphabet, and as such, it is also a field of narrative not unlike that of novels, but also, of course, similar to the rest of equivalents with literary modalities: Descriptions, memories, journalism, essays, poetry, agitation, archives, portraits, correspondence, etc. The classic consumption of cinema has constrained the potential of unexplored territories, and it is precisely to explore them from the wisdom of a cinematic legacy, capable of giving them intensity and sense – which is frequently absent from the objects of the “audiovisual” propagated from a whim, from fashion, or just mimesis.
Jonas Mekas appears in Guest. Was your meeting with him the genesis of the videocartas that the two of you would exchange for the exhibition Todas las cartas which will appear latter this year? Can you tell us something of the videocartas concept and the affinities you may have with Mekas’ films?
It is interesting; as our correspondence develops, it is evident that I am still thinking and writing in the form of “film letters”, whereas Jonas, always quicker and more versatile, thinks in the form of “video letters” – and both formats respond to different ways of writing.
When the idea of a correspondence was proposed to me, I recommended four or five American filmmakers, difficult for me to contact without mediation from the museum that was commissioning the works. They were heterogeneous and quite dissimilar from my trajectory, but precisely that is why it is a stimulating proposal. I requested Monte Hellman, or Peter Bogdanovich or Jim Jarmush… as one would in a letter to Santa Claus… The task was not to think of the most beloved or admired filmmaker, but of those with whom, for a certain reason, it would be interesting to establish a relationship of that kind.
In any case, the first of the five was Jonas Mekas. I think all of the films of US Underground are, in some measure, his work. Jonas’s filmography can be contemplated not just as that filmed personally by him, but also with him as the generator of an attitude, a film possibility that was activated by him, like in another time the Griersons did – by agglutinating filmmakers around him, giving them support, inspiration, visibility, and thus, legitimacy.
Jonas is the quintessential filmmaker, a man of the camera, but also a scholar and agitator, and the archivist of memory. This is something similar to what would happen if French cinema had an author that encompassed the role of Jean Luc Godard, André Bazin and Henri Langlois.
This seems to be a bit excessive, but in fact Mekas represents all of this and the imaginary of the New York underground of my youth, with the mythos of the Velvet Underground, the Warhol Factory, and so on. My teenage years were anti-imperialist years, and still, English never sounded so seductive. The derivates of Beatnik culture, rock, and the Underground, were an essential part of our imaginary, and Jonas’s texts made him, in great measure, the spokesman of this.
Within your film a critic introduces you with these words: “Someone at the forefront of a major theme in cinema today, the frontier between documentary and fiction, where documentary ends and where fiction begins. All your films play on this idea…” And later a similar question is posed to you on stage at a festival in Colombia: “How much fiction is there in your documentaries and how much documentary in your fiction?” Do you agree that this is a major theme of cinema “today”? If so, what filmmakers, aside from yourself, do you see working in this nexus between documentary and fiction?
The answer to this question could become a full essay, because, certainly, it contains one of the characteristic features of modernity; that recognition of two legacies that, in the past, were perceived as absolutely separated, and yet today come to know each other.
The GPO films that surrounded John Grierson, or the CMS of Alain Resnais, Jean Franju… they possess a deep knowledge of cinema, the form of cinema; Chris Marker’s films, especially those from the 60s and 70s have a sophisticated use of editing, a confrontation of words and pause and ellipsis, in which Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock are assimilated, but beside them also, sharing that diffuse space, that is difficult to identify – that of documentaries and their peripheries, and lazier forms of cinema that today we call “audiovisuals” – without even recurring to the denomination “film”; those forms that have been ignored by the medium, usually proposed as a mere elongation of pretty bad journalism, or those who look for moral redemption just because of the goodness of their causes, without considering film in itself as a cause, and not a minor one.
These cases are innumerable within the last decades, and go from Maurice Pialat’s fictions with cinema-verité style techniques, and Victor Erice’s El sol del membrillo (Quince Tree of the Sun, 1992), or the documentaries of such various people as Phillibert, Raymond Depardon and Alain Cavalier, in which, without the need to break from documentary logic, you can recognise the assimilation of the use of framing, of narrative and sequenciality precedent from fiction.
Sometimes, this can be recognised in the simplest situations, the way of speaking to people. When you see a film like Pier-Paolo Pasolini’s Comizzi d´amore (1965) or Place de la République (1974) by Louis Malle, you see one or the other filmmaker creating actual cinema, as in the act of conversation, in the same manner they have of relating to one another, of discovering a character or revealing an emotion, or respecting a gesture or pause – to imprint a tempo, to orient the rhythm of a sequence that is being directly created, with an echo from a previous sequence, or a rhyme… in the same manner in which you would integrate the surroundings and their contingencies in conversation. Within that, in the formulation of a simple conversation, one can recognise the instinct, the strategies of true cinema, as opposed to those of journalism or television
On one hand, cinema should periodically renew its form of representing reality. On the other, a modern filmmaker sometimes feels that he must deal with the randomness, the unexpected, with that which one cannot control, to go a bit beyond himself, to have access to something that is found within the predictable world.
Your film is very interested in portraiture, both painterly, photographic and filmic. Would you agree that, to take two examples, the old man in Havana who reminds you of Cervantes’ Don Quijote, and the street vendor in Chile who dreams of Jerusalem are film portraits of a kind? And of course, one of the most lyrical sequences in the film is your evocation of William Dieterle’s film Portrait of Jennie (1948). As the street painter says: “I do portraits to try to capture a person’s gestures”. Could this not also be said of your cinema?
Each day, I think of cinema more in the form of a portrait. Normally, through the passage of time, I forget arguments and thesis and what I retain more each time is the small gestures that reveal humanity: a furtive glimpse, an inflexion, a pause, unexpected laughter… I attach the workings of my films to the capture of those moments, and at the same time I just conceive these moments within a sequence. It is only as a consequence of the sequence that these revealing flashes can be revealed.
As I have been taking consciousness of this, I have been questioning myself, and the procedures of the great portraitists of painting, their methods, their dialogue with the landscape, their strategies to characterise portraiture, their creation of interesting and significant situations and the way they can relate with their model.
If you were to strip that from cinema, and leave it at its minimum, perhaps just its bare essence, you would obtain the same thing as the pictorial equation: a man in front of another man with a tripod, which greatly resembles an easel and canvas between the two men. From there, the central question is how to relate to that person, that model, and how to relate the person with other people, the spectators. In this triangular relation, painters and filmmakers have a great legacy in common.
There is a beautiful moment in the film where your shadow falls across the plaque of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Ultimately, is Guest not a “ghostly” portrait of José Luis Guerin? In a sense you are reflected back via all the poets, painters, photographers and dreamers that you encounter in this extraordinary travel diary.
Perhaps, yes. Certainly, that is easier for you to see, from a distance which I lack. In any case, it is true that I considered the people that I found through my itinerary as part of the act of cinematographic creation, as co-directors. In general, they are storytellers (very diverse, from street poets to maddened preachers) who can propose different means to narrate the world, generally from the observation of public spaces. Guest is a film that comes from these complicities, with the people who have wanted to be co-participants – in general people without a voice, that long to be heard. What’s different here from classical portraiture is that the model is active, they generate the narration, even the play itself, in certain way both director and accomplice. The feeling of doing something with someone else – it is only through those encounters that I have defeated the irremediable solitude of the guest.
Every filmmaker is a citizen of the ‘country of cinema’, but is it not also possible to say, simultaneously, that each filmmaker is forever only a “guest” in the empire of cinema?
I am afraid of the semantic slip within “country” and “empire” – but I know quite well the notion of cinematographic imperialism, and it has nothing to do with the small continent of cinema, which every film spectator creates with the topographies of films that they have really cared about, with which they have grown up. This continent can evolve from the wasteland of Monument Valley to the streets of Tokyo, passing through Ukranian wheat fields. Within this continent, all our values and aspirations, all of our imaginary, are contained. Thus, it is a part of our selves.
Translated from the Spanish by Héctor Ortiz.
Guest screens on Monday April 18 at ACMI as part of La Mirada film festival.